Karnataka Is Proof Only a United Opposition Can Stop BJP's Juggernaut

If there is a wider lesson from Karnataka for national politics as 2019 approaches, it is this. The BJP will actively play the communal card. And the opposition cannot counter it with identity politics of its own.

There are two ways to look at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the Karnataka assembly elections. The fact that it has won 104 seats is a stunning achievement though it is less than the 112 it needs to form a government on its own. But the underlying vote shares tell a more complex story:  the Congress – as of the Election Commission’s website at 6 pm – was ahead with 38% to the BJP’s 36.2%.

Seats matter when it comes to winning and losing, and in determining the immediate political consequences of a result. Tuesday’s victory is not so much a shot in the arm for Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP as it is a lethal blow to the Congress and its new president, Rahul Gandhi, especially if the party is able to use its seat tally, its deep pockets – and the presence of a friendly governor – to shoe-horn itself into power by breaking the Janata Dal (Secular).  The Congress desperately needed to generate some political momentum in the run up to the crucial state elections later this year of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram. Today, having lost its largest state by an unambiguous margin, the Congress will go into those races with its back to the wall. Unless its offer to help make the JD(s)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy passes muster at Raj Bhavan.

When it comes to drawing broader conclusions about what worked and didn’t work, however, it is the voting percentages that need careful scrutiny. The counterfactual of this election is that the Congress has seen seats tally fall by more than half even as its share of the popular vote has risen by one percentage point. To be sure, the BJP’s vote share has registered a much more handsome increase. In 2013, it polled 19.8% but if we add to its share the votes polled by the Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu factions which are now within the united saffron fold, its vote share five years ago was 32.4%. In the latest election, the Modi-Shah-Yeddyurappa trio have managed to boost that by 4.8%.

So how have both the Congress and the BJP managed to increase their vote shares? By eating into the Janata Dal (Secular) of H.D. Deve Gowda as well as a host of smaller parties and independents. The JD(S) vote share has decreased from 20.2% to 18.4%.

How do we explain the increase in Congress’s vote share? Was it Siddaramaiah’s use of Lingayat identity politics? Anecdotal evidence on the ground suggests this was not much of a factor at all. One thing is clear though. It was not the masterstroke the Congress had hoped it would be.

What explains the BJP’s higher vote share? The usual argument of “anti-incumbency” does not hold much water because the Congress’s vote share has not fallen but actually risen marginally. The BJP would like to believe the Modi government’s ‘development’ image did the trick but vikas was only a secondary factor in the BJP — and Modi’s own — campaigning. What may have worked for the party was its communal rhetoric, particularly in the coastal region, as well as the bruising language Modi deployed against the Congress – replete with half-truths and outlight lies – which might have impressed a section of voters. The fact that the only chief minister the BJP deployed in the Karnataka campaign from its stable of more than a dozen was Yogi Adityanath tells its own story. The Uttar Pradesh CM is a poster boy for Hindu chauvinism and nothing else.

If there is a wider lesson from Karnataka for national politics as 2019 approaches, it is this. The BJP will actively play the communal card. In 2014, Modi added to the BJP’s historic vote share a swing of 10% on the basis of his promises of development and decisive governance and against the backdrop of the UPA government’s disastrous concluding years. He cannot hope to retain those new voters on the basis of the work he has done, especially not on the employment front. The Sangh parivar’s answer to this electoral challenge is to polarise the electorate on the basis of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Using WhatsApp and other new methods of propaganda and rumour-mongering, bogus issues are being raked up in state after state. First it was cow slaughter, then love jihad. From there the BJP moved on to triple talaq and polygamy. Now it is Tipu Sultan, Jinnah and namaz. Modi may not have been decisive enough in creating jobs but at least he has shown Muslims their place. This is the sum and substance of the subterranean campaign being waged by the Hindutva groups.

The opposition cannot hope to counter this poison by injecting identity politics of its own. Siddaramaiah’s Karnataka flag and ‘minority status for Lingayats’ issues provided the Congress, at best, marginal gains. In Karnataka, a more prudent strategy would have been to stitch up a robust pre-poll alliance with the JD(S). Going by the present vote shares, such a coalition would have easily won two-thirds of the seats in the Vidhan Soudha. Siddaramaiah’s conciliatory gesture to the JD(S), after polling was over, of saying he was willing to step aside as chief minister in favour of a Dalit leader came too late in the day to make any difference. Given the split in votes, the BJP was able to walk away with a lion’s share of the seats.

If the BJP thought strategically, it ought to have considered – even as early leads showed it forming a government by itself – reaching out to Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumarasawamy and offering to form a coalition government with them. Not only would the BJP have forestalled the Congress offer which came and was promptly accepted by the JD(S), but it could have also made it that much more difficult for the Congress to reach an understanding with the JD(S) in 2019.

As the BJP’s project of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ continues to march ahead – the Congress now holds power in just Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram – the party and its leaders need to put ego and personal fortunes aside. The writing on the wall is very clear. The Congress under Rahul Gandhi is simply not in a position to mount any kind of national challenge to Narendra Modi in 2019. What it needs to do is to set aside any dreams it has of a revival and focus instead on survival. And survival means building as broad a pre-poll alliance with as many parties as possible, cutting across regional and ideological lines.

It’s quick offer of unconditional support to Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) suggests the Congress has passed its first test. But between now and 2019, it will be tested over and over again.

Note: This article was updated to take into account the final tally, and Congress’s offer to form a coalition government with the JD(S) under the leadership of H.D. Kumaraswamy